It’s been a while since Sonic The Hedgehog has had a purely 2D game, with the last one being Sonic Rush Adventure on the Nintendo DS back in 2007. So here, for Sonic’s 25th anniversary, we have Sonic Mania. A purely 2D game created by a specially chosen team lead by Christian Whitehead and Headcannon.
The game has the same sort of barebones plot that borrows from the Mega Drive games, with Sonic and Tails discovering a strange power reading on Angel Island and going to check it out, only to discover they’ve been beaten to the punch by Eggman. The power reading turns out to be the mysterious Phantom Ruby, a new gemstone with unknown power. The only thing Sonic and his pals know for sure is that if Eggman keeps it, bad things are probably going to happen considering his track record! Like I said, it’s pretty barebones and straightforward. Pretty much an excuse to go fast.
The game involves trying to get the ruby back, with the ruby found to have mysterious time and reality warping powers. Which means being sent to all manner of familiar locations, such as Green Hill Zone from Sonic 1, or Metallic Madness Zone from Sonic CD. The retro levels themselves are all from the earlier 2D installments (1, 2, 3 and CD). Though along with the old, there are also a few brand spanking new zones. And the old zones themselves are given a fresh coat of paint and a bunch of interesting new gameplay quirks to make sure things are kept fresh and exciting.
Although this is no surprise given the team behind it. Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, and pretty much everyone involved in making this game were previously heavily involved in the Sonic ROMhacking scene, making their own fan games and this is specifically why SEGA brought them on board. They knew what made a 2D Sonic game interesting and absolutely applied it here, along with all kinds of extra goodies that will keep Sonic fans new and old very happy.
Every level is loaded with references to the games, both subtle and fairly over the top. There were a lot of times racing through a level I had to stop to appreciate something that reminded me of one of the old games, or even a subtle reference to other classic SEGA titles like After Burner. Everything from the enemies to the layouts of the levels all have some significance SEGA fans will find entertaining.
As for the gameplay itself, the physics engine is masterfully coded as the game looks, feels and plays like a classic Sonic game, allowing you to choose from Sonic, Knuckles or Tails, all with very different approaches to the levels and gameplay. It’s fast. Very fast. But, like classic Sonic games, sometimes it’s best to take things just a little bit slower because there’s always other paths to take which usually lead to a secret or a special stage. The special stages make a return here in two forms, one being the classic Blue Sphere from Sonic 3 & Knuckles. This mode allows you to collect medals, which then unlock extras such as abilities, play modes or sound tests. The second special stage is a brand new game based on the special stages of Sonic CD, playing in 3D with the goal of chasing down a UFO that’s holding a Chaos Emerald. The idea here is to go fast, but carefully, because the stage is full of hazards.
The levels themselves are all stunningly beautiful, with bright colours galore and fun mechanics never seen before. There was never a single point that I felt unsatisfied or confused by the mechanics. Any deaths were always entirely my fault, rather than the fault of bad level design or glitches. And even when I did die and had to start over, I was more than happy to do so because it meant I could take a different path and find new secrets and references. Not to mention I’d get to enjoy the music for a little longer.
The music itself deserves its own praise, brilliantly composed and bringing to mind Sonic CD mixed with a little modern flair. There are remixed versions of old tracks along with new tracks for the new stages, as well as the menus and the like. And keep an eye out for one brand new track in particular that… Basically takes a note straight from Ghostbusters? It literally contains the Ghostbusters theme? But I’m absolutely not complaining.
There absolutely could have been more new stages, and it’s disappointing that the developers have said they don’t intend on adding more via DLC. But as a complete package as is, it’s very hard to fault. There are a few minor glitches here and there, but nothing I’ve found that impacts gameplay, and there’s no real clear instructions so there are various mechanics that were only explained when I Googled them myself, so that may prove as a barrier to younger games used to more modern games.
Other than that, Sonic Mania proves that good Sonic games are absolutely still possible. And that classic 2D platforming certainly hasn’t gone out of style. Hopefully this is the start of an upward trend for the blue blur.